The power of communication is once again pivotal to changing attitudes, says our columnist
Mental health is one of the last stigmas to be found in society. Generations of those with mental health issues have been afraid to talk about them for fear of feeling ashamed or encountering ignorance or bullying. It takes bravery to challenge this state of affairs.
Thankfully, we have seen a recent sea change in approaches to mental wellbeing - from the Prime Minister's Happiness Survey to powerful speeches in the House of Commons by Charles Walker MP, Kevan Jones MP and Sarah Wollaston MP, among others. This builds on the openness of celebrities such as Stephen Fry and Catherine Zeta-Jones, who have shown that mental illness no longer has the connotations of decades past. The power of communication is once again pivotal to changing attitudes.
My local youth council also joined the celebrities and MPs on this list of bravery. Following the suicides of two local students, this inspiring group wanted to understand the reasons for mental health problems in schools. It wanted to raise awareness of the importance of school counselling services and uncover the issues that cause young people concern.
Through tenacity and focus, the youth council rallied the support of the local Youth Talk counselling charity and the Hertfordshire County Council counselling service to develop an online survey completed by more than 1,800 students.
The findings were truly insightful, highlighting concerns with bullying and self-harm, the fact that teachers were the preferred option for guidance on personal issues and the lack of awareness students had of the counselling services available in schools. Youth council representatives gave powerful speeches to the Health and Wellbeing Partnership that I chair and to the county council. They created a wave of supporters among councillors, health professionals and school heads.
Their next challenge is to make these findings widely accessible, and the power of social media has to play its part: not just Facebook and Twitter, but online tools that were previously only for professionals with big budgets. For example, Issuu, which can be used to create digital documents with pages that turn, Easel.ly to create an infographic and Storify, which can create a great live case study. Blogs and social networks will be used too, but having the right assets to share on visual sites such as Pinterest can really raise awareness.
Many of the people reading this article probably have similarly powerful research, which sadly has only ever gone as far as their local geographical borders or as a link on their organisation's website. These new tools allow for greater flexibility in sharing content, which can connect with a far wider audience than ever before - and tell the stories that need to be told.
Communication is not only a tool, or a career choice: it can also create powerful and lasting change. This is often talked about in terms of revolutions such as the Arab Spring. Yet, in the case of mental illness and similar causes, social media might offer the opportunity to create a revolution of understanding. Unlike the Arab Spring, the barriers in this instance don't wear uniforms and hold guns, but are to be found in perceptions and attitudes. The youth council's report alone may not change the world, but if enough people use social media to break down barriers on these topics we have a real opportunity to change society for good.
Dean Russell is European social media director at Lewis PR and a Conservative district councillor